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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, STEM

Three Things We Can Learn From Dr. Tim Hunt’s Comments

Source: Zig Ziglar

Source: Zig Ziglar

It’s been just over a week since the comments by Dr. Tim Hunt, went viral. Hunt is a biochemist from England and was invited to speak at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, Korea on June 8, 2015.

According to Connie St. Louis, an attendee at the conference and the director of the Journalism Program at City University in London (issued as a Twitter tweet):

[Hunt] stood up on invitation and said that he has a reputation as a male chauvinist. He continued, “let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Not happy with the big hole he has already dug he continues digging “I’m in favor of single-sex labs” BUT he “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women”.

Unfortunately, his remarks did not go over well with this gathering of senior female scientists and science journalists, and almost immediately went viral – and not in a good way.

Hunt was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Paul Nurse and Leland Hartwell for their discoveries of protein molecules that control the division of cells. [Ref 1]. He has other notable achievements including being knighted in 2006 with the title of Sir.

According to Hunt, he was attempting to be funny and was making a joke. His joke didn’t get any laughs, and unfortunately for him, the fury began.

Here are three things we can learn from Hunt’s comments:

  1. Let’s Get Rid of “The Girl” For Good

I debated if the girl would be discussed first or last in this post. Being mindful that girl(s) has been around much, much longer than Dr. Hunt’s comments, it was moved to the top of the list.  While I can’t speak for every female in the workplace, I will say that most of the women that I know in business and STEM would prefer to not be called girl.

What is problematic for me is that we’ve been trying to get rid of this reference to female employees as girl(s) for some time. Back in 1979, Marsteller Advertising developed a print campaign for United Technologies called Let’s Get Rid of “The Girl” for Good. The campaign carried the message that men should treat women in the workforce with respect, and give them credit when and where credit is due. A full version of the text is included at the end of this post.

And here it is 2015, some 36 years later, and the girl(s) that has no name is still hanging around and being used in a speech in Seoul, Korea on June 8, 2015.

  1. When You Find Yourself in a Hole, Stop Digging

Following the comments that put Hunt in hot water, two days later, he attempted to issue an apology in an interview with the BBC. He said:

“I’m really sorry that I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in presence of all those journalists. And what was intended was a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment … was apparently interpreted deadly seriously by my audience. But what I said was quite accurately reported.

It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them. If they break in to tears then you hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing except getting at the truth. And anything (that) gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.

I mean I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offense. That’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean … I just meant to be honest actually.” [Ref 2]

At this point I realized that as brilliant as Dr. Tim is, he appears to have missed the lesson: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. And while Hunt openly admitted at the beginning of his talk that he is a self-admitted male chauvinist, a good speaker would have taken into his account that his audience was a group of journalists from around the world. He could not have picked a worst audience to make these remarks to. His apology comes across as half-hearted, and had the ability to rekindle some of the flames from the first eruption in Seoul.

Having open and honest conversations is a must for professional and forward moving organizations. I will acknowledge that some STEM professionals have mastered the art of doing so, far, far better than others. And while some women have been known to cry at work, some men do as well. This does not relieve the supervisor or manager of his or her duty to give honest and open feedback regarding performance or other work related matters.

I’ve decided to save comments regarding working with the opposite sex for another post and another day, however, I’d strongly recommend that Dr. Hunt get a copy of John Gray’s Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus to help navigate those gender differences.

  1. Free Speech Does Not Guarantee No Consequences

While most persons will agree that they have the right to say whatever they want, most do not agree and some do not know that their very words can be used against them one day. In an interview with The Observer, Hunt acknowledges that what he said was wrong, however, according to him, the price that he and his wife have had to pay for his mistakes has been extreme and unfair.

Hunt stated that he was forced to resign from his post at University College London (UCL) without being given a chance to explain his controversial remarks about women in science. “I have been hung out to dry,” he told the Observer in an exclusive interview. “I have been stripped of all the things I was doing in science. I have no further influence.” [Ref 3]

Hunt was also released from his post on the European Research Council’s science committee and has since resigned from other posts, including membership of a Royal Society committee. “I have become toxic,” he told the Observer. “I am finished.”

While I tend to agree that maybe some of the actions against Dr. Hunt may have been rash and premature, he has become radioactive, and organizations that he has been affiliated with are responding to that.

However, before I ask, Dr. Tim, can you really tell us how you feel about women?, the Guardian reported that several senior female scientists came forward within the past week to defend Hunt. They include the physicist Dame Athene Donald, the biologist Professor Ottoline Leyser, and the physiologist Dame Nancy Rothwell. All three, although critical of Hunt’s specific remarks about women, spoke warmly about his past support for younger scientists of either gender. “Many will testify to Tim’s great support and encouragement for younger scientists, both male and female. Indeed, he has trained and mentored some outstanding female scientists,” said Rothwell.

As I have reminded members of a professional organization that I belong to that diversity and inclusion is something that can’t be ordered up when you need it, included within this mix is gender and cultural awareness. While I respect Dr. Tim’s achievements and don’t doubt that, according to his wife, he is a wonderful father, husband, and scientist that has helped many women in their careers, attributing his recent missteps to his age (72) or generation just doesn’t cut it for me. Seventy-two is not old by today’s standards. It is regrettable that Dr. Tim never really had to think much about his comments or his audience until now.

Words can hurt! Words can cut! And words can kill! As business and STEM professionals, be mindful of making any remark that may not pass the front page test (for newspapers) and the home page test for social media. Take care of your words when you are with others.

In closing, I do think that Dr. Tim can get beyond this, however, he needs to let others do the talking for now.


Let’s Get Rid of “The Girl” For Good

(Sources: United Technologies and The Wall Street Journal [Ref 4])

Wouldn’t 1979 be a great year to take one giant step forward for womankind and get rid of “the girl”?

Your attorney says, “If I’m not here just leave it with the girl.”

The purchasing agent says, “Drop off your bid with the girl.”

A manager says, “My girl will get back to your girl.”

What girl?

Do you mean Miss Rose?

Do they mean Ms. Torres?

Do they mean Mrs. McCullough?

Do they mean Joy Jackson?

“The girl” is certainly a woman when she’s out of her teens.

 Like you, she has a name.

Use it.


  1. Wikipedia, Tim Hunt, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Hunt
  2. Nobel laureate says shockingly sexist things about “girl” scientists, kind of apologizes, by Akshat Rathi for Quartz, June 10, 2015, http://qz.com/424329/nobel-laureate-says-shockingly-sexist-things-about-girl-scientists-kind-of-apologizes/
  3. Shamed Nobel laureate Tim Hunt “ruined by rush to judgment after stupid remarks’, by Robin McKie, Science Reporter for the Observer, June 13, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/june/13/tim-hunt-forced-to-resign
  4. Let’s Get Rid of “The Girl” for Good (Source: United Technologies and http://stanbond.com/index.php/about-stan-bond-montgomery-il/51-content/about-stan-bond-montgomery-il/163-let-s-get-rid-of-the-girl

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


2 thoughts on “Three Things We Can Learn From Dr. Tim Hunt’s Comments

  1. Well said! What’s truly frustrating is hearing men like Tim Hunt undermine their own careers by defending stupid statements. Numerous defenders attest that he does not actually behave like a chauvinistic pig, yet somehow instead of admitting his attempt to be funny was a failure, he doubles down and keeps digging! The original statements probably would not have been terminal but the follow up not-pologies just continued to get more asinine.


    Posted by Ann Marie Eisentraut | June 18, 2015, 3:29 pm
    • My sad reality is that this is not the first time I’ve heard these excuses. It kinda rolls with “boys will be boys”. Personally, I think Dr. Tim’s colleagues and friends did a disservice to him in not pointing out the problems and challenges of him making statements like this in public.


      Posted by Vi Brown | June 18, 2015, 5:31 pm

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